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An Incredible Story

He's outside on the driveway to welcome me, a healthy glow in his cheeks from his hike in the forest. His fleece vest is unzipped at the front, despite the morning chill, and there's trail mud on the toes of his boots. I'm met by a grin and a firm handshake but our words of greeting are overwhelmed by a noisy flock of Canada geese touching down on the lake below the house. If we weren't already acquainted I might be asking, "Is your dad home?"

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At 80, Robert looks 50 and maintains a schedule that would exhaust a team of Olympians. Within the past four weeks he has opened a show at the State Russia Museum in St. Petersburgthe first there by a North American artist. Hes visited his artist son, Allen, in Nova Scotia, spoken about nature to 1,500 teenagers at the Moncton Coliseum, talked with more youths at the school named for him in Burlington, Ontario, then stopped in at his nephews 50-student school in Quebec.

Now he's comfortably, albeit briefly, ensconced in his favourite place doing what he loves most - painting nature in his Saltspring Island studio. In less than two weeks he and his wife, Birgit Freybe Robert, are off on their fifth trip to Antarctica. Then, among other adventures, there's a photographic safari in Africa, more art shows in Russia, birding in Ontario, and finally home for a birthday celebration with his family.

"I'm not obsessed at all with turning 80 or getting old. I still feel like I'm about 40. But I am a bit obsessed with time, very obsessed with time actually."

"When you turn 80 you start counting how many more times am I going to be able to go to whatever, how many more months of May will I have? Maybe 10; if I'm really lucky, 20." May, with flowers blooming and spring birds singing, is Robert's favourite month. "I guess maybe it's like tokens or silver dollars in my pocket - how do I want to spend my Mays?"

It was never Robert's plan to get rich and famous. As a youngster in Toronto his sketches of scenes and critters in the ravine behind his family home we're simple renderings of childhood curiosities. How was he to know they would progress into paintings that hang throughout the world in galleries, museums, public buildings, and private collections, including the palaces of royal families?

"I was always an artist and a naturalist, but there's nothing special about that because all little kids love art and nature. Most normal human beings grow up around the age of 12 or 13 and go on to more mature things. I have not yet reached that stage. I'm still doing exactly what little kids do, you know, playing around with art and playing around with nature."

At 13, when he made his first salea painting of a cardinal to his science teacher - he was reluctant to accept the $1 offer. But the teacher insisted he wanted to be able to say that I bought the first picture."

A wise investment: today that painting, wherever it is, could be worth thousands. Some large originals now are valued at more than $150,000. In Robert's eyes, however, wealth and fame are byproducts. "The fact that I sell my art readily is not, to me, the definition of success. I never expected to do it; it's really a pleasant surprise.

His modest self-appraisal isn't necessarily the view of his public following. His achievements as an artist, teacher, conservationist, and philanthropist have earned a dozen honourary degrees and numerous awards, including the Orders of Canada and British Columbia, the Governor General Award for Conservation, and, his most prized, the Rachel Carson Award from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The U.S. National Audubon Society placed him among the 20th century's 100 Champions of Conservation. More than a million of his art books have been sold.

"I would say my definition of success is just one painting at time. Or maybe my whole life, you know quality of life with the family, with my lifestyle, being able to live where I want to live."

Any nature lover would envy this life. Through the studio windows I see waterfowl upended in the shallows along the edge of the lake where a canoe lies in wait for a paddler. The land across the lake, adjoining Robert's woodsy 30-hectare spread, is owned by Ducks Unlimited. This intact sanctuary is not likely to change anytime soon.

The artistry begins with wooden arches over the gateway to a path leading down to the house. A creek meanders amid boulders and native plants placed according to Robert's design, feeding a fish pond near the front entrance. The door is from Africa, the aboriginal art around it is from our part of the planet.

Behind the door, outside comes inside with fir posts and beams from the property. Daylight streaks in through big picture windows onto wood floors. On the walls and floors, in the corners and alcoves is an impressive, and undoubtedly unique collection of world art, much of it representing indigenous cultures. A few of his works hang near those created by his wife, a talented photographer. My tour of the house concludes at what seems to be my hosts most cherished picture - a small portrait of Bridgette and him with his five children and six of his nine grandchildren.

Birds flutter about the feeders outside the studio. Inside, subdued natural light from the north illuminates a large picture of a cougar, one of eight paintings currently in varying phases of completion. Never a time waster, he dabs paint on the canvas as we talk.

"Real art, truly great art, should have a sense of mystery," he muses. "For example, Mona Lisa is my least-favourite famous paintingda Vinci did a lot better thingsbut there is a sense of mystery. What's she thinking? Je ne sais quoi . That expression in her lips, in her eyes. My most charismatic pieces, such as MidnightBlack Wolf , are my most mysterious.

Some art lovers might contend that image - a lone wolf peering eerily through leafless trees in a dark, snowy forest is Robert's defining work, but he doesn't share that sentiment. "I don't have one. Its sort of like saying, who's your favourite child?What I'd like to feel is that the body of my work speaks to what I'm driving at, and that is the bounty and the variety in nature. As you flip through one of my books you have no idea what will be on the next page. It could be a mouse, or a moose, a native canoe, or a treefrog."

Originality is also essential. "I try not to repeat what's been done a thousand times before, and I try to make the painting have grace. There may be a lot of blades of grass, or fur, but I want it to still seem effortless.

Occasionally the near-photographic realism in his work has earned the disfavour of art critics who write it off as mere illustration. He's been berated, as well, for selling signed reproductions of his originals. Some critics overlook the contribution that the sales of those copies have made toward environmental education and conservation causesdonations amounting to literally millions of dollars, not to mention the ecological enlightenment.

You name virtually any artist, contemporary, or avant-garde, or whatever, there'll be an art critic who will knock them. Whether Robert or any other wildlife artist is accepted by the Priesthood, as I call them, is the least important issue facing the planet. Who cares, really."

Although only a handful denounce his work, he nonetheless feels their sting, and he takes their criticism to heart. His one-man show in 1987 at Smithsonian Institutions Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., drew a quarter of a million visitors. In the midst of all the accolades was one review in the Washington Post that panned the show for it's failure to depict the "dark underbelly" of nature. He agreed it was fair comment, noting that he had pleaded with the shows curator to present a more encompassing portrayal of the natural world.

It isn't necessarily beauty; it may be ugliness." More than two decades later, his shows this year and last in Russia include paintings of clear-cut logging and a dead dolphin and albatross entangled in a driftnet. Those kinds of images don't sell, but sales have no bearing on Robert's choice of subjects. His depictions of the good, bad, and ugly in nature combine his lifelong passions as a naturalist, a teacher, and an artist. Most importantly, they stress the urgency of sustaining the Earths ecosystems, a commitment he tries to instill in people of all ages.

Before fame came to the Robert household his "meal ticket" was a teaching career that spanned two decades, including a stint in Nigeria. He taught high-school art and geography in Thornhill and Burlington, Ontario, until 1976 when painting became his full-time occupation. Though Roberts classroom days are over, his teaching is not. He is one of the most sought-after speakers on environmental concerns and frequently delivers keynote addresses at major natural history events.

"I love teaching. I left it reluctantly." Two schools in Ontario and one in Abbotsford, British Columbia, are named in his honour. The family tradition is carried on by his son, Chris, who teaches high-school art at St. Michael's University School in Victoria, B.C.

Sharing his intimate knowledge of nature was a mission on which Robert embarked as a teenaged junior naturalist leader with the Royal Ontario Museum. His teachings there, and later in schools, have had a lasting affect. This years African trip is led by Canadian nature photographer Bob Taylor, one of his junior field naturalists in the 1940s. And the mayor of Burlington, Ontario, a former student, claims that Robert's influence is behind his effort to make Burlington one of Canada's most livable cities.

"The teacher has to fall in love, as I was already in love with nature from the age of 12. That's why the mayor of Burlington, because his teacher was already in love with nature, is trying to make Burlington green. That's the essential thing: you can't write a program if it isn't in the heart of the presenter."

Earth Day at Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre in Sidney BC. Bruce Obee (www.bruceobee.com)

In the hope of persuading more teachers to open their hearts to environmental education, in 2000 Robert launched his Get to Know (your wild neighbours) program. Virtual hikes in major cities and contests in art, photography, and writing encourage children to switch off their computers and get outside. Biophilia, says Robert, is the crux of the program. We have to get little kids and teenagers to fall in love with nature and living things, and feel it in their hearts. Then when they grow up and become industrialists and lawyers and so on, the love will come through."

He sadly concedes, however, that the Get to Know goal of enticing a million kids into the outdoors by this year is almost insurmountable. Their brains, he argues, have been invaded by an alienelectronics. He fears this ever-growing disconnection of the human race from the rest of nature is a link that is not only being diminished, it's being completely eliminated for the first time in the history of our species.

This is going to change the world in a horrible way. What kind of parents are these zombies going to grow up to be, if they grow up?

Our discussions of these disturbing controversies seem contrary to the bucolic aura in his studio. I'm reminded that the artist, like his art, is more complex than first impressions might reveal. I wonder what thoughts are swirling through his mind as I watch his latest creation unfold stroke by stroke.

"I do two things," Robert recently told an audience at Victorias Royal Roads University. "I paint and I rant." His rants are a series of essays published on his website, Robert Robert's Ideas (www.Robertideas.com), described by Maclean's magazine as "a cranky, omnivorous menu of opinion." Certainly if there is a curmudgeon lurking within Robert Robert this is where you'll find it. But to call them "rants" is somewhat self-deprecating. They are by no means the thoughtless ramblings of an ill-informed grouch. They exhibit, instead, a genuine deep-rooted worry for the future of planet Earth.

As a world traveller, Robert's environmental perspective is global, based largely on his own research and intellect, yet swayed by the like-minded company he keeps. Revisiting some of their African haunts with Robert this year is his "old buddy" Dr. Bristol Foster, a fellow Saltspring Islander. An internationally-recognized ecologist, Foster was a director of the Royal B.C. Museum and the provinces first coordinator of ecological reserves. He, too, was a junior field naturalist with the Royal Ontario Museum long before the late 1950s when the Robert-Foster duo loaded up a Land Rover and took off on a world tour.

That life-altering expedition was a cornerstone in an unwavering quest to give nature a voice, to expose it's beauty, it's hostility, fragility, and resilience. It helped set the course for a young artist and educator determined to remind the worldto convince the worldthat natural history and human history are inextricable components in our ecosystems. For Homo sapiens to lose sight of our natural roots is to forfeit the sustainability of humankind.

These convictions and philosophies, and a lifetime of work behind them, are part of a legacy that soon will grace the grounds of Royal Roads University campus near Victoria, B.C. The Robert Robert Centre, an art and environmental education venue, will house hundreds of works by Canada's most famous wildlife artist, ensuring they remain here at home.

Original paintings, prints, gicles, carvings, sculptures, and more than 80 sketchbooks dating back to Robert's teens will be displayed along with journals, photographs, films, books, and personal memorabilia.

Although contemporary, aboriginal, and other art will be exhibited, the Robert Centre will be not only an art gallery. It will be a place where art and science merge, where cultures overlap, and ongoing dialogue about conservation issues is encouraged. Much of the content in the courses offered at the centre and elsewhere at RRU will espouse Robert's environmental beliefs.

The natural forest theme visible through big windows will be reflected inside in wooden beams, floors, and ceilings, some of it gathered from the campus grounds. Its expected this "living building" will be entirely self-sufficient in energy and water use, a catalyst in the plan to take RRU "off the grid," to make it the nation's first carbon-neutral, self-sustaining university.

Funding for the centre was kicked off by a donation from the Robert family of $11-million worth of art, private collectibles, and money. Robert is continuing to produce new paintings to be exhibited there. The first, Ravens Roost valued at more than $90,000, was donated by the Roberts, who also have established a bursary in their name.

The choice of Royal Roads as the home for his legacy was based partly on it's location, a 230-hectare oceanfront National Historic Site with an Edwardian castle surrounded by old-growth forests, a place that celebrates and protects both human and natural heritage.

Posted in Home Improvement Post Date 11/05/2021


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